Sunday, June 26, 2011

Gotta Serve Somebody

There are a lot of things that go into good writing. Spelling and grammar are important, of course, as is the ability to choose the right words. But I think what is essential to really good writing is the ability to select precisely the right analogy. A lot of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, revolves around making comparisons. When communicating to another person, you want the same thoughts that are going through your head to go through his or her head, and often, the same feelings as well. Sometimes a mere recitation of facts won't do. If you want to communicate a rather abstract process, the best way to do so is to pick as a metaphor something your audience recognizes and understands. So Einstein's theory of general relativity, as it relates to the distortions of space-time caused by the gravity of massive objects, might be best illustrated by asking people to imagine a large rubber sheet which is holding up a bowling ball, representing a large planet. I have heard financial reporters describe the way Wall Street has been operating for the last couple of decades as being almost indistinguishable from a casino. And the infatuation of love has been described as an addiction, something neuro-scientists say is right on the money.

In Romans 6:12-23, Paul uses the analogy of slavery both for being dominated by sin as well as for serving God. And though slavery was a very ancient, universally practiced and legal activity, that analogy might be hard to digest for modern readers. First, because in the West, we don't really don't have any first hand knowledge of slavery. What we know is influenced by the specific kind of slavery we used to have in this country. And, secondly, we see slavery as such a great evil that we cannot see it as a metaphor for anything good. So I'm going to first give a brief description of slavery in Roman times. And then I will suggest a metaphor that may make it easier for believers today to understand what Paul was getting at.

In the US, when we hear about slavery, we think of how it was practiced here until after the Civil War, that is, a racial, involuntary, and lifelong condition. Slaves in the US were not educated (it was illegal) and were confined to menial or manual labor. But slavery in ancient Israel was more complex. There were many ways in which one could have become a slave. One could have been captured in a war. One's parents could have been slaves and so in that case, any children they had were automatically slaves. Children might be sold into slavery by desperate parents. Worse, unwanted infants born to poor parents were often just left in a field or by a road to die. Some were fortunate enough to be rescued and raised as slaves. Or, finally, one could have sold oneself into slavery to work off a debt. In this last case, sheer survival motivated these slaves. Biblical laws protected them and ensured they were fed and clothed. A master could adopt a slave and make him his heir. A slave could own property, make money, save it and buy him or herself out of slavery. Or a relative could redeem someone who had become a slave for financial reasons. And all such slaves were freed every 7 years and during the Jubilee year, observed twice a century. The kind of slavery found in ancient Israel was therefore neither racial, lifelong nor necessarily involuntary.

Even in the Roman Empire, where slaves were considered chattel, they could be educated and become doctors, teachers, or even civil servants in fairly high positions. Some of the Church's early bishops were slaves. So slavery, while not an ideal state, was not as hopeless a position in which to find oneself as we think today.

Thus when Paul uses slavery, it is not entirely a negative term, especially if one had a good and fair master. And he is saying here that one either serves sin or serves God. To Christians he says, "you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God…" So we should not be serving our old master. We are no longer under his domination. And it's a good thing, too, for to remain enslaved to sin leads ultimately to death, eternal separation from God, the source of all that is good. Serving God leads to eternal life in Christ Jesus. It's a clear-cut choice.

But the use of the term "slavery" makes the metaphor a problem today. So I want to propose a different metaphor: that of addiction.

I've used addiction as an analogy for sin before, having seen and treated patients suffering from it. And this week, as I was contemplating the passage in Romans, I heard an episode of "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" in which she interviewed David Linden, professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. In his new book, "The Compass of Pleasure," Linden explains how addiction works in the brain. Addicts actually have an impaired ability to experience pleasure. When doing things others find pleasurable, their brains do not secrete the same amount of dopamine, the reward chemical. So whereas a normal person might get a buzz after one or 2 drinks, an alcoholic may have to drink 6 or more to get the same effect. The problem is that this pushes the addict to overdo things that are fine in moderation, like eating or sex, but have negative consequences when taken to excess. And if their particular addiction is to something that is not even safe at low levels, like heroin or cocaine, they may eventually overdose. The odd thing is that, even if the thing they are addicted to gave them pleasure at first, eventually it loses that ability and they simply continue so as to avoid the awful effects of stopping. As many smokers will tell you, they no longer enjoy it; it has become something akin to a need. Quitting is very daunting. Withdrawal from certain hard drugs will not only be extremely painful and sickening but can be dangerous if not properly monitored. And ironically, forcing your body to secrete dopamine artificially damages its ability to do so naturally. The recovering addict may find himself in worse shape when it comes to feeling happy.

It's not hopeless. People do get weaned from drugs, alcohol, overeating, gambling, and compulsively seeking sex. But it almost always requires getting help. And one of the most effective ways is through the 12-step program. In a little over 2 weeks Alcoholics Anonymous will see its 76th anniversary. As Dr. Drew Pinsky says, "In my 20 years of treating addicts, I've never seen anything else that comes close to the 12 steps….In my world, if someone says they don't want to do the 12 steps, I know they aren't going to get better."

But how does addiction make a more insightful analogy for sin today than slavery?
First, there is a combination of voluntary and involuntary factors in both addiction and sin. An addict has a genetic flaw that makes him or her susceptible. Yet if he or she never starts the addictive behavior, he will not succumb. 80% of those who try smoking will become addicted to it. (Only 30% of those who try heroin become addicted to it.) But 100% of those who never try it will not develop the habit. In Genesis 4:7 God tells Cain, "If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." God is saying that the possibility of sin is always there but it can only get its hooks into us if we let it. The problem is, we do let it. We give in to selfishness, to rage, to lust, to greed, to laziness, to envy, to gluttony, to arrogance. Once we open that door, sin, like addiction, gets in the driver's seat and takes control of our lives.

So are we responsible or not? Linden makes an important distinction. If addiction is a disease, one cannot condemn a person for having it, anymore than we condemn a person for having heart disease. Linden tells Terry Gross "We should say, okay, well, you're an addict. You have something wrong with your brain the way this other guy had something wrong with his heart. But it's not a free ride. Now that you know you're an addict, you better get in treatment. You should do stress reduction strategies. You should avoid the triggers for your addiction. You should be in a group that can offer you social support. And if you don't do those things, it's your own darn fault." As a nurse, I've been telling patients with diseases the same thing for years. Even with a disease like diabetes, while you may not be responsible for having the illness, if you don't follow the rules for treating it, you will be responsible for the escalating complications of it.

Notice that Linden specifically mentions things like stress reduction. Prayer and worship have been scientifically shown to reduce stress. He says to avoid triggers for your addiction. It's been shown that even seeing places where one used to buy drugs or shoot up trigger cravings in addicts. We call them temptations. Linden talks about being in a group that offers social support. He's talking about group therapy or a 12-step group. The 12-step movement was started by 2 Christians, one an Episcopalian, who were alcoholics. The first step involves admitting one has no control over one's addiction. And the next step is coming to believe that there is a power greater than oneself that can restore the addict. Step 3 is turning over one's life and will to God however one understands God. Basically, the 12 Steps involve what the church calls humility, faith, repentance, confession, prayer and evangelism. The group is like a church in that it is a bunch of people coming together with the purpose of supporting each other in changing their lives for the better.

So maybe addiction is a good analogy for being dominated by sin. But Paul talks of being enslaved to God. Surely the metaphor of addiction is inappropriate in speaking of devotion to God.

This week I also read that love can be compared to addiction. The same reward system in the brain is activated. And anyone whose ever gone through a break up can agree with scientists that it is a form of withdrawal that can affect our sleep, eating, concentration, mood and more. But we would not say that love is something to be avoided. In fact, on the Diane Rehm show, a study showed that love, marriage and kids were all major reasons that can motivate long-time offenders to abandon a criminal career. To break an addiction, you need something stronger than the thing that enslaves you. If love for a person or your children can do it, how much more can love of God free you?

Sin, like addictions, can promise to give us the pleasure we feel we are missing in life. But like addictions, sin really can't do the job and we often end up caught in patterns of behavior that we really hate but are afraid to abandon lest we face an awful emptiness. God's love can fill that void. He can liberate us from the self-destructive habits that enchain us. By giving our lives to him, praying, worshiping, maintaining spiritually and morally healthy practices and seeking the support of a group of like-minded people, we can find a life of true pleasure. As Psalm 34:8 says, "O taste and see that the Lord is good."

As Bob Dylan sang, "You're gonna have to serve somebody." The choice is ours. We can fall victim to the law of diminishing returns that comes when we try to find pleasure in things, or we can obey the law Jesus pronounced the greatest of all: to love God with all we are and have. If we do that, we will find that loving those created in God's image, including ourselves, follows naturally. I can think of worse fates than being hooked on a life of loving God and his creatures.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Word of Power

Harold Camping, the radio preacher who predicted the Rapture would come last May, had a stroke recently. His speech has been slurred. Some people see this as punishment from God for being a false prophet. (What an unfortunate time to be an atheist! All they can say is that it is meaningless happenstance, nothing more.)

I think the disappointment, humiliation and universal scorn he had to bear might have had a lot to do with the 89 year old's health problems. What is ironic is that instead of seeing the end of the world at large, he has instead witnessed the end of his world as a authoritative preacher of the Bible. Very few of his former listeners are going to pay attention to him, should he return to the airwaves. The board of his Family Radio network is going to be questioning the wisdom of spending 100 million dollars on advertising a wrong rapture date. This isn't going to help their contributions either. This isn't a time for gloating; it's a tragic ending to a hitherto impressive career.

Like a lot of people who have disgraced themselves in the ministry, Camping lost sight of the heart of the faith: the Gospel. The word means good news. It is the good news how God in Christ is working to redeem the world, not smash it to pieces like a frustrated child. It is surprising how little of the Bible is apocalyptic: 2 books and a handful of chapters scattered among 66 books. The fact that it draws so much attention in certain sections of the Church says more about them than about God. It's like someone constantly rehashing how bloody it will be when the surgeon cuts the patient open and ignoring the fact that the patient will have a better life ahead of him.

Today we read the entire first chapter of Genesis. Never mind the controversy of whether it's bad science or good poetry; notice how lovingly the creation is described. God creates not just vegetation but, according to Everett Fox's closer translation "sprouting-growth, plants that seed forth seed, fruit trees that yield fruit, after their kind and in which is their seed." God doesn't just create life but says, "Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living things, and let fowl fly above the earth, across the dome of the heavens!" And then "Let the earth bring forth living beings after their kind, herd-animals, crawling things, and the wildlife of the earth after its kind." And after making each, God sees that they are good and blesses them. This is not a mere catalogue; this is a craftsman looking over his work, lingering on the details and saying, "I did a good job." And he's not eager to see it thrown in the dumpster. He's going to restore it, however hard it will be.

And he's going to do it with his word, his God-breathed word. That's the literal translation of the Greek term usually rendered "inspired by God." God weaves the world into existence with his words. And he uses words to restore it. He calls Abraham, sends him to the distant land of Canaan, and makes a agreement, a covenant, with him. All words but words of power. He calls Moses, sends him to Egypt to free his people, and at Sinai, he makes them a people by binding them to him in a covenant. The preamble of that covenant becomes the basis of the ethics of the Western world. They are called in Hebrew "the Ten Words." God-breathed words. Words of power.

God's people want a king. God calls David, the legend against which all subsequent kings are measured. But the power of the kingship seduces. God calls the prophets, who speak his words of judgment to the powerful and his words of comfort to the powerless. Through the prophets, God calls his people back to the Spirit of his original words. The people listen and then forget. They do this over and over until they are so lost, they end up exiles. Then they remember and write down his words. And they put his words into action. They become people of the Book, God's Word. God-breathed words. Words of power.

The people return home as God promised but they squander their freedom. Their would-be king seizes power with the help of a powerful empire, who becomes the new oppressor of God's people. Starved for God's word, the people cry out. And God sends his Word, his living Word, his deepest expression of himself, to his people, as one of his people. And he speaks words of power. They try to silence the living Word with the power of death. But the Word cannot stay silent, cannot stay buried, cannot be stopped. And the living Word sends out his disciples, his students, to speak his word to others and make them students. And the word spreads. And the word, the God-breathed word, is love, the most powerful word there is.

Since then the word has covered the world. But we haven't always trusted the power of the God-breathed word of love. We have trusted in our own power, our power to manipulate, to intimidate, to harm, to kill. And we have tried to spread the word that way. And people don't trust the word of love when it hides behind the point of a sword. If we trusted the power of the word, we wouldn't need a sword, a least not one of iron or steel. When Paul describes the armor of God in Ephesians 6, the only thing that is not purely defensive is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

God made the world with words of power. He will recreate it the same way. He has entrusted to us the words of power. If we mean it when we say them, if we live what we say, who can stop the power of the God-breathed word of love?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Catching the Spirit

A lot of us are eagerly awaiting the Avengers movie. Not only will this film feature Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Incredible Hulk but it's written and directed by Joss Whedon. Besides doing movies and TV, most notably "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Serenity," Joss has written comic books. So we know he will do it right. It's only too bad he didn't do the other Avengers film, by which I mean, not the Marvel Comics superhero team but the movie version of the 1960s British spy series. At a time when everyone was trying to do a TV series that looked like the James Bond films, this show mixed satire with sci fi and spy tropes and came up with a wonderfully frothy confection. A key element was the chemistry of the lead characters, played by Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Macnee played John Steed, a smiling secret agent in a Saville Row suit complete with bowler hat and umbrella. Rigg played Emma Peel, a cool beauty who dressed in Carnaby Street mod clothes and was a master of the martial arts. They symbolically represented Old England and Swinging London. The sexual tension between the characters and their tongue-in-cheek approach to the bizarre threats they faced made the program a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. When the inevitable movie remake came out in 1998, the notable cast included Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery. But Fiennes' Steed was dour, not jovial; Thurman's Peel was frantic, not coolly confident; and Connery uncharacteristically chewed the scenery as the villain. The result was a movie that totally missed the spirit of the original. I wish I'd never seen it.

As someone who has seen and read far too many bad versions of Sherlock Holmes, I can tell you that it's not enough to get the superficial details right about a character being portrayed. You need to capture his or her spirit. Thus all the pipes and deerstalker caps in the world could not get a good Holmes out of Roger Moore, Stewart Granger or even Tom Baker. Whereas Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and even Benedict Cumberbatch's updated Sherlock got the character's personality perfectly, even though each brought something different to the role. This is even more noticeable in Doctor Who. Each actor who plays the role brings something new to the title character. The Doctor can be heroic, wily, rude, inoffensive, madcap, or formidable but always he is the same person, a champion of justice who uses his brain rather than brawn, and who encourages others to act their best.

The problem with talking about the spirit of something or someone is that it is notoriously hard to define. It's easy to say that Richard Roxburgh's Holmes was all wrong because he portrayed the Great Detective as a hardboiled private eye who beat information out of his suspects. It's tougher to put one's finger on how that is different from Robert Downey Jr.'s action hero version, who, while he did display prominently Holmes' canonical prowess at fisticuffs, fencing, and the single stick, somehow managed to play him as a person who thought first and fought only or mainly when necessary. It comes down to a matter of emphasis and is best seen by contrasting it to something that is antithetical to the spirit you are seeking.

Sunday was Pentecost, the anniversary of when the Holy Spirit was poured out liberally on the disciples and kicked off the growth of the church. And at a time when church is seen as increasingly irrelevant by those of the Millennial generation, I think we must ask if we have somehow lost the Spirit of our faith.

In the Old Testament, God's Spirit is an extension of his power, synonymous with the hand of God, by which he accomplishes his mighty acts. It is also chiefly thought of as the spirit of prophesy. The Spirit comes upon a prophet and he or she announces the word of the Lord. The prophets also spoke of God's wisdom as semi-autonomous aspect of the creator, attributing to Wisdom many of the characteristics we see in the way the New Testament speaks about the Spirit. Between the Testaments, Jews recognized that no one spoke with the power and authority of God's Spirit anymore. One of their hopes was for the day when God's Spirit would be poured out on all of his people. This would happen when the Messiah inaugurated God's kingdom.

So when Jesus spoke of God sending his Spirit upon his disciples, his audience understood it in this way. What Jesus added to this was the realization that the Spirit is not an impersonal power, but God himself. In John 14:15,16, Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever." In verse 26, he explicitly says the Advocate is the Holy Spirit. And in verse 23, he says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." The parallel shows that the Spirit is to be identified with the Father and the Son who will be with believers forever.

In addition, Jesus calls him "the Spirit of Truth" and elsewhere says of himself "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." In Romans 8:9, Paul calls the Spirit of God the Spirit of Christ. Which makes sense since it is the indwelling Spirit that makes believers into the Body of Christ. So the Spirit we are to embody is that of Christ, God Incarnate. If we do so, one can see how that will draw people to the church. But if they do not perceive in the church the Spirit of God but some other spirit, that's not going draw them to us.

How do we embody the Spirit? Looking back to the prophets there are a handful of characteristics that stand out. First, the Spirit speaks out against evil. This is what the world primarily hears and why it thinks that all we talk about is negativity. And yet we don't say doctors should lighten up on warnings about disease. Oh, wait, we do. I remember an incident that took place here in the Keys. Solares Hill newspaper gave space on its front page to Dr. Mark Whiteside, who wrote an article reacting to the upsurge of HIV infections and detailing the specific practices that were responsible. There was a huge backlash that essentially called Dr. Whiteside a traitor to the community he so selflessly served. But he was concerned with saving lives and there was a generation that did not remember how AIDS devastated the gay community in the 1980s and were not practicing safe sex. He had to speak the truth, however unpopular, and warn people, even persecuted people, about self-destructive behaviors.

The prophets were received in much the same way. They pronounced God's judgment on political as well as spiritual evils. They talked about private sins as well as social injustices. They often ran counter to the culture and they paid for it, some with their lives. We can all find in the writings of the prophets things we like and things we don't. We Episcopalians enthusiastically go after social injustice but are less comfortable with pronouncements on people's personal sins. Evangelicals tend to do the opposite. Either is unbalanced. Despite constant reminders of our duty to the poor, Leviticus 19:15 says, "You shall not render an unjust judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor." There is no protected class; there are no forms of dysfunction that are acceptable. I can cause a car accident by breaking laws, speeding and passing where I shouldn't, as well as by texting on my phone or reaching for something or having an argument with my passenger. It doesn't matter to the person I hit if I was deliberately or inadvertently being reckless, whether my focus was on getting ahead or on personal matters.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out, in an orchestra, not only do the musicians have to harmonize with each other and keep the same beat, each individual instrument must be maintained and in tune, or the symphony will be a disaster. It's not an either/or situation. And we keep seeing how the self-destructive personal habits of the prominent can derail their effectiveness as leaders, regardless of their position or politics. You can't completely compartmentalize your life. Neither should we try to do so with our faith.

But the doctor doesn't tell you about your bad habits simply to bum you out. He offers hope of healing if you change. Things are only hopeless when nothing more can be done. One of the bizarre features of the aftermath of Harold Camping's busted rapture prediction is that he says the final judgment of the world happened in May instead. It's too late for repentance now. Everyone's fate is set in stone when the world ends, according to his calculations, in October. If you're not already a Christian, you're doomed. Not only is his math off, so is his theology.

The prophets did not come just to afflict the comfortable but also to comfort the afflicted. God had not abandoned his people, nor were they beyond his mercy. God is primarily about forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection. That last part is key. Death should be the point at which all hope is lost. Certainly the disciples thought so. One of the men walking to Emmaus said, "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel." Notice the past tense. Jesus' death meant that hope was dead as well. But all things are possible with God. And the men traveling to Emmaus were in for a big surprise. There is no end to hope when love is present, Paul reminds us. And God is love.

I recently heard someone disparage the saying, "God loves you just as you are and he loves you too much to leave you that way." But that's the essence of our hope. I know building up people's self esteem by telling them they are perfect just the way they are is the vogue. Too bad there's no evidence that making people feel good about themselves actually makes them good. Too bad that they've discovered that incompetent people often have good self esteem as well as bullies and psychopaths. Being told you're all right when you're not is cruel. Ask the person struggling with addiction if God's love would mean anything if it didn't mean she could change. Ask the person who has spent his youth getting into trouble and bouncing in and out of prison if he merely wants God to affirm who he is and not transform him. Ask the person who has spent his life chasing money, material things, or women if he wants God to simply say he's fine as he is, without filling the void in his existence he is so obviously feels and making him complete. Jesus said that the sick, not the healthy, need a doctor. So he comes to call, not the righteous, but sinners. When you realize that you need healing, the Divine Physician is your greatest hope.

This is the message we so often neglect to proclaim. Even John the Baptist at his most scathing did not forget about hope. He didn't water down the diagnosis but he was able to offer a promising prognosis because God's Spirit renews lives. And his Spirit is available to all who let him in and let him do whatever he wishes with us. When you don't try to limit what God can do in you, he can do amazing things. Scary, perhaps, but amazing, nevertheless.

And when hope bubbles up within you, when you see the triumph of God's goodness, when you glimpse the beauty and promise of his love, the natural reaction is joy. And that is also a characteristic of the Spirit. In the Old Testament we see at times companies of prophets singing, dancing, and making music. When Saul, Israel's first king, was anointed he ran into a band of prophets and we are told that the Spirit of God came over him mightily him and he prophesied with them. The Hebrew word for "come over" has the sense of being pushed powerfully or overwhelmed and so some translations speak of him being "seized," "possessed," or "ecstatic." It sounds rather like joy.

Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus said that he had come so that our joy may be complete. Joy is an quality Christians, especially in the affluent West, are not known for. We are seen as dour killjoys. And we wonder why people aren't going to church as much as they used to.

The church grew like crazy when the Spirit was poured out. The apostles spoke the truth about people's need to be saved. They offered the hope that in Christ people could be changed for the better. And they showed joy.

Why aren't we growing today? Is it that we aren't telling people the truth? Is it that we aren't admitting that something deep within us needs healing? Is it that the message we offer is no different from the "feel good" messages that people can get elsewhere in our culture?

Is it that we are ashamed of the hope we can offer in Christ? Is it that, for fear of sounding exclusive, we are sending the message that you don't have to come to him; you don't have to come here; you can get the same thing down the road, somewhere else, anywhere else?

Is it that we don't do joy? Is it that we are so afraid of what the Spirit will do if we unleash him, so worried that people will think we are drunk or crazy, that we settle for a sedate, measured, dull presentation of what should be great good news? Have we rendered boring what should be a joyous proclamation of what God in Christ has done, is doing and will do for us? Christ has died--for us! Christ is risen--for us! Christ will come again--for us! How mindblowing is that? How can we not be excited at what he is doing in and for us and others? And how can we not be thrilled over what God will do next and what our part in it will be?

We wore red Sunday to recall the fiery tongues that appeared over the apostles on that first Pentecost. Jesus said he came to set the world on fire. Let us not quench that fire. Let us stoke it. May our prayer be from this day forward: Holy Spirit of the living God, who appeared to Moses as a blazing bush, who lead the children of Israel to freedom as a pillar of fire, who transfigured our Lord Jesus Christ so that he appeared to shine like the sun, purify our souls, illumine our minds and set our hearts on fire for you!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Time of Your Life

The most valuable thing we have is time. Its value does not vary. We all have 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 and a quarter days a year. We have no way of knowing exactly how many years we have and we have no sure way to increase the years we will receive. We can't stop the steady disappearance of our days. So it is best to savor and spend each one wisely.

They say time is money and you could argue that time is the true asset that backs our money. Our pay is tied to our hours per week or to the year. So when I buy something I am trading increments of my life for it. The same is true when I devote time to some interest or activity. The worst thing to do is you spend your life on things that will diminish it in quality and probably in length; the best way to spend it is on things that will increase its quality and possibly its length.

This month's sermon suggestion question asks, "With all the TV, computers, etc. to fill our time, what does the Bible say about how much of our time should be spent doing God's work?"

At first it looks like this question has an obvious and easy answer: the Sabbath. The Sabbath has no real parallel elsewhere. Other religions have holy days, of course, but no other religion set aside one day each week for everyone, including slaves, immigrants and even animals, to stop working. The word for Sabbath comes from the Hebrew for "cease, rest." The idea is that, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, we his creatures should likewise cease working every seventh day in his honor. And unlike the way we think of it today, Sabbath observance is not trivial. It is the longest of the Ten Commandments. And so rabbis through the ages tried to work out what was involved in observing it. They identified 39 categories on work it prohibited, including gathering food and fuel, starting a fire, writing, and more, and codified them in the oral law, the expansion of the written law considered by most Jews as just as binding. Though this aspect is not specifically enjoined in Exodus, it became a day of worship and contemplating God's law, the Torah. So it would seem that the Biblical standard for the amount of time spent doing God's work is one day a week.

You may see the problem here. Does spending one day in worship comprise the whole of God's work for us? Is there nothing else he wants us to do? And if it is work, should we be doing it on the day set aside not to work?

If there was one thing Jesus kept getting flack for, it was healing on the Sabbath. Every one of the gospels says Jesus was censured for it by the Pharisees, experts in the law, both written and oral. His defense was 2-pronged. First, he pointed out that the Sabbath prohibition didn't stop people from taking their farm animals to water or rescuing one that had fallen down a pit. Surely rescuing a person who was suffering from a disease was just as good an exception. Second, he claimed that his authority as Son of Man made him lord of the Sabbath. In John's gospel, Jesus says that since his heavenly Father keeps working on the Sabbath, so should he, the Son of God.

Jesus is not saying that the Sabbath isn't special or that it shouldn't be observed, but that good works and acts of compassion were exempt because they, too, are done in imitation of our good God. The corollary is that doing such good works is not something restricted to certain times but something we may be called upon to do whenever it's needed.

There has always been an unacknowledged principle at work among some churchgoers that they could live anyway they wished the other six days as long as they showed up on Sunday to get their sins forgiven. One needn't be a theologian or ethicist to see the flaw in that kind of thinking. But it does reveal the way people come to think whenever a day is declared holy. We think we must behave utterly differently on that day. But the word "holy" means "set aside." The Sabbath has a designated purpose. It is a day to pull our minds out of the workaday world and focus on God. It's not like we are free to ignore him the rest of the time. Mother's Day is a special day to honor those who brought us into the world and/or raised us. But I hope it isn't the only time you treat your mother nicely and thank her for all she's done for you.

So while the Sabbath is a weekly reminder to set aside time to think about, communicate and commune with God, it doesn't mean we are "off the hook" the rest of the time. For one thing, we live in a world of hurt and so everyday there are works of compassion that can be performed. For another, we are the body of Christ and supposed to act as he did, which is to live everyday for God and do his will always.

Jesus started everyday with prayer. It was the practice of the day for Jews to pray at both sunrise and sunset, and maybe also at noon. We don't know precisely what Jesus prayed but based on what we know of first century Judaism, he probably said the Shema ("Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.") and possibly the 18 Benedictions, a Jewish prayer that includes references to the resurrection of the dead and the sending of the Messianic King. So we really ought to pray in the same vein. Episcopalians can use the brief devotional forms in the Book of Common Prayer, or if you can make the time, read the Daily Office which is in the first section of the Prayer Book. There is a table in the back that gives you the Scripture readings for the Daily Office and will take you through the entire Bible in 2 years. For petitions, use the prayer list in the church bulletin, or the one online in the Grapevine, our Diocesan newsletter. You can also craft your own prayer time using the many prayers in the back of the Prayer Book. Or pray spontaneously. It's not something we do much in the Anglican Communion but we should encourage all forms of prayer. (Do me a favor, though. Avoid prayers to Lord Wejus. You know, the ones that go, "Lord, Wejus' come to you in prayer and, Lord, Wejus' ask that you…etc." God hears even inarticulate prayer but unless you're under duress, try to speak to him the way you would anyone else.)

Besides prayer, reading the Bible is essential. Studying it is important as well. There are lots of books and guides that will help you study a book or a topic. There are good commentaries as well. For the New Testament, I like Barclay's Daily Study Bible series for a great mix of information on the language, the culture and the application of what is learned. Bishop and scholar N. T. Wright has a great series on the New Testament with titles like "Matthew for Everyone" or "Paul for Everyone."

Or you can D.I.Y. One simple method is to read a portion and ask yourself what is the main thrust of the passage. Is there anything new to learn about God in it? Anything new to you about human beings? Anything you are commanded to do or to avoid? Anything you should pray for or about?

Oh, and about that first thing in the morning habit. It's an excellent way to start but if you're pressed for time, there are several free daily Bible podcasts you can listen to as you brush your teeth or dress or drive to work. Or if you really aren't a morning person and can't think for several hours, remember what a Bible teacher of mine with the same problem said to me: the Jewish day begins at sunset. Do it when it will benefit you the most.

Once you're primed for the day, do your job conscientiously. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "Serve enthusiastically, as if to the Lord and not to men and women." There is no indication in the Bible that God wants everyone to abandon their job and hand out tracts on street corners. But if what you are doing is contributing to the good of society and serving people's needs, it doesn't matter if you are a social worker or a checkout clerk at Winn Dixie. You can do God's will by doing your work well. God is ultimately your boss and he wants you where you are, making sure the kids get driven safely to school on the bus, or your coworkers get their paychecks on time, or your customers have their problems solved.

And occasionally, you will see opportunities to be of more help. You will be dealing with a stressed-out coworker, or a frustrated client or a customer who's been badly used by your own company. Do the right thing, the most loving thing, and you will be witnessing to the power of God's love.

What if you are ill or handicapped or otherwise sidelined from the mainstream of life? The blind poet Milton wondered what he could do for God and concluded "they also serve who only stand and wait." (Did he not realize his poems, like "Paradise Lost," would live on and inspire generations to come?)

There is always the need to pray for others. And today, with the internet and the phone, anyone can reach out and help. Actor Dick York had to quit the hit show Bewitched because of severe back pain and addiction. He beat the addiction and then battled emphysema. He founded a charity called Acting For Life to help the homeless and others in need. With a cannula in his nose, delivering oxygen, he spent hours on the phone with politicians and business men, garnering support and donations for others.

Are we working for God 24/7, then? Yes, if only in the sense of being on call, ready to spring into action should the need arise. Like a cop or a doctor, we're never really off-duty. That doesn't mean we can't have time to ourselves because this is the God of the Sabbath, the one who commands us to rest and who creates pleasures galore for us to enjoy. But we should never put pleasures before people who really need us. And we should avoid all illicit pleasures that do not glorify God but defame him and harm ourselves and others. We've all seen what happens when Christians feel they done enough good and deserve time off for bad behavior.

Do not worry if what you do is not explicitly Christian. My patient's mother knows this is my other job but she considers me a godsend when I simply make sure he eats, or naps, or takes his medicine. Every book I read to him, every bit on non-food I pull out of his mouth, every diaper I change is a blessing. When I entertain him on Saturdays so she can catch up on some of the sleep he's cost her, it's an answer to prayer. Being a blessing to others is serving God.

Let me conclude with a saying of St. Francis: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."